Getting in the pocket

Girls from LO team show they can compete with best in hip hop
by: Vern Uyetake, Members of the Westside Dancers include (front row from left) Brittany Nichols, Annelise Moss, Daniella Carracci, Jenna Hasson, Ashley Warrell (back row  from left) Karli Fralia, Michelle Gornbein, Birgitta Allen, Taylor Booth, Hannah Skreen and Emmaline Woods-Smith.

When Pamela Woods first saw her daughter perform hip hop dancing, she didn't know what to think.

There was 14-year-old Emmaline, doing the sharp, swift, relentless moves that go into the dance, accompanied by the 'angry' street attitude that goes into hip hop.

It was definitely a head-shaking moment.

Topping everything was when Emmaline put on her 'Thizz' face, which her coach and choreographer Amanda Miller describes as 'a really mean face.'

The 'Thizz' took quite an effort from Emmaline, since she has a very cute face. But it was tougher for her mom, who had been a ballet dancer all through her school years and college. This was not what Woods expected to see from a bunch of girls from Lake Oswego. Especially her own daughter.

'As a former dancer and a mother, it took me awhile to appreciate this pseudo-gang stuff,' Woods admitted. 'It's unique, urban and fresh. I tried to be open minded.'

But Emmaline can just flat-out dance hip hop, and so can her teammates on the Westside Hip Hop Team of Lake Oswego. Led by Miller, they were undefeated in Oregon, first at regionals, fifth at United Spirit Association All Star Cheer and Dance Nationals in Anaheim, Calif., (where they would have placed third if not for a penalty), and third at Northwest PAC in Portland.

As the hip hop saying goes, they were 'getting in the pocket.'

'The girls were very confident,' Miller said. 'We heard things like 'You girls got some soul' and 'We didn't know they could dance like that in Oregon.' '

'We were really, really excited,' Emmaline said. 'We weren't really happy with the way we competed in previous years. But this time we were crying because we were so excited.'

The outstanding performance at nationals was something of a culmination for both Miller and Emmaline. Miller had been coaching Emmaline ever since she was 7 years old and a member of The Dancing Kittens, the youngest of the three age groups that Miller coaches.

It sort of brings to mind Gene Kelly's line from the classic musical Singing In The Rain - 'Gotta Dance! Gotta Dance!' So does Emmaline Woods-Smith. Hip hop, that is.

'I watched hip hop on TV and I always liked how fast and exciting it was,' Emmaline said. 'Hip hop has such fast, upbeat music with a lot of beats, and the movements that go with it are really quick.

'You've got to be really strong in your movement and finish every move and make it really powerful.'

If that sounds like a lot of work, you're right. But there is one thing any aspiring hip hop dancer must remember: Hip hop dancers are born, not made.

'You've got to have it in you already,' Emmaline said. 'You can work and get better, but to be really good you've got to have it in you.'

'Hip hop is completely rhythm,' Miller said. 'If you've got no rhythm….

'Hip hop is not technical. It's in you or it's not. Girls who are attracted to Westside, instead of their school dance teams, come because they love hip hop.

'There are a lot of shaking body parts in hip hop. I wouldn't recommend that a shy, ballerina type of girl try it.'

Hip hop dancing involves body isolation, using very fast arm and feet movements which are very difficult, because double time is used for everything. The body must be kept in a low position and there are lot of tricks, such as one-handed handstands.

'You're practically frozen in mid air,' Miller said. 'One of our girls fell and split her chin during a routine, but she got up and tried again. She wasn't scared.'

Making it even tougher for the Westside dancers to compete is that they often went against big city African American and Latino girls who had been dancing hip hop their entire lives, and there aren't a lot of mean streets in Lake Oswego. Miller and her team were disappointed with their showings in previous competitions.

But not in 2008.

One of the best things Miller did to turn her team into a contender was bring in choreographer Jenelle Yarbrough.

'Our styles are very different,' Miller said. 'I'm more classical. Jenelle is very hardcore, with fast footwork. She's phenomenal. She brought in more break dancing and stunts and tricks.

'The girls are afraid to perform in front of her (like at halftime of Portland TrailBlazer games) because Jenelle is so brutally honest. But if the girls weren't good, she wouldn't be working with them.'

Yes, Miller's girls were good. Good enough to raise the competitive hackles of some of the teams they were competing against at nationals; girls who had led hip hop lives.

'We were going against kids who had been doing it for years,' Emmaline said. 'Their movements were so sharp and on time, and the more energy they put out the better they did.

'One team from Los Angeles glared at us and tried to intimidate us. But we knew we had as much chance as they did to win. We didn't need to be scared. We knew we were good.'

Good enough to take home a trophy and good enough to dream of even bigger things for next year. The Westside Club girls have arrived, and now they have their sights set on winning nationals and going to the world tournament in Florida in 2009.

'That's our goal,' Miller said. 'We want to go to worlds. We'll work harder, we'll be faster, we'll have more stunts. Sometimes we do things that get us docked in Oregon. But that's OK. We want to go to nationals, then worlds. By Emmaline's senior year I'm sure we'll go to worlds.'

Now just a freshman at Lake Oswego High School, Emmaline truly does have the potential to be the kind of dancer who can help put the club on the world stage.

'Emmaline is by far one of the strongest dancers I've ever seen,' Miller said. 'She's got the 'It' factor. She adds so much to our routines.'

Emmaline has done something else, too: made a hip hop dancing fan out of her mother. Pamela Woods has come to terms with the fact that her daughter will never become a ballerina. To Woods, having a hip hop dancer in family, even when she puts on a Thizz face, is quite a wonderful thing. She is a parent who is getting in the pocket.

'When I see all of her energy it brings me to tears,' Woods said. 'Emma has something I didn't have. I had the same love of dance, but she has the endurance and strength. She gives 150 percent every time, even in practice.

'I loved it, did it and dreamed about it. But Emmaline has the chance to take it to the next level.'

Westside Hip Hop Team members include Birgitta Allen, Taylor Booth, Daniella Carracci, Karli Fralia, Michelle Gornbein, Jenna Hasson, Annelise Moss, Brittany Nichols, Hannah Skreen, McKenzie Smith, Ashley Warrell, and Emmaline Woods-Smith.

Team coordinator is Lane Carracci.